Sean McAllister’s documentary about a family of Syrian refugees in Europe would be compelling at any time. Now it is unmissable. This is about love, but it could as well be called A Syrian Rage Story or A Syrian Despair Story. It is the tragic portrait of a disintegrating marriage; the story of two people whose love has been hammered by fate, history and each other.
These are not refugees as we are encouraged to understand them by the nightly news: nameless poor people to whom the prosperous west can respond with pity or guilt. These refugees don’t want to be passive recipients of compassion, but active participants in their own destiny. Above all, they are angry. Their anger floods the screen.
McAllister begins his story in 2009, when Syria was being marketed to westerners as a glamorous, cosmopolitan new tourist destination with ancient culture and monuments as important as anything in Greece and Turkey. And so McAllister begins his movie with a brutal twist of irony, a subliminal flash-forward to a later reality in which our certainties about the Arab spring have been overtaken by the existence of Islamic State. In the capital Damascus, McAllister meets Amer Douad, a Palestinian activist from thea coastal town of Tartus who has a heart-rending story to tell. While in prison, Amer fell in love with a fellow inmate, Ragdha Hassan, a beautiful leftwing Syrian activist against the Assad regime. Now they have three children: Shadi, Kaka and Bob, but she is back in prison and Amer must raise them on his own. McAllister is present with his camera as day by day, week by week, Amer and the children lavish their love on the idea of an absent wife and mother. When Ragdha is finally freed, their joy is overwhelming.
But then McAllister is briefly imprisoned by the regime; his friendship makes Amer and Ragdha’s position in Syria untenable. They move, first to the Palestinian enclave of Yarmouk camp, outside Damascus, then to Lebanon, and finally to Paris, having been granted refugee status by the French government. But their marriage is coming apart and McAllister records its breakdown from 2009 to the present.
Raghda is suffering from post-traumatic stress at her brutal jail treatment; she is pierced with guilt at having effectively deserted her comrades’ struggle against Assad, and at becoming an irrelevance herself, washed up on a far shore away from a battle she considers crucial to her identity. Ragdha becomes filled with resentment and depression, and McAllister’s camera captures the way her face, once alight with beauty and fun, becomes clouded and pained. Amer’s face, too, becomes older: hunted, almost furtive, a man with secrets. The film allows us to consider the awful thought that the couple were happiest apart, when they had only the tragically exalted idea of each other. Love depended on prison. Now he accuses her of being impossible to live with, of being arrogant and simply nettled at her own loss of status. Amer’s love curdles into machismo as he demands Ragdha attend to the duties of motherhood. There are walkouts from the family home, suicide attempts and accusations of infidelity.
Incredibly, McAllister was there for a great deal of this. The scenes look real enough. It takes its toll on the children, although their son Kaka emerges as exceptionally perceptive and smart. As a little boy in Syria, he is asked by McAllister about the Assad tyranny: “Does it make you want to leave? Live somewhere else?” He replies: “No, fight.” His views as a teenager in Paris are very different. As for Amer, he begins by speaking to McAllister about Ragdha like this: “She is a strong woman; I am a very weak man.”
Perhaps he has foretold their destiny. But the heartwrenching thing is that her strength and his weakness – as he perceives it – might not have been a problem, had they been able to stay in Syria. Who can tell? It could have been the agony of Syria that destroyed their relationship, or it might have fallen apart in any case. McAllister and his camera might have accelerated the breakdown, though it is just as likely he provided valuable therapy. Even at the end, Amer and Ragdha clearly have feelings for each other. This is love among the ruins.